The gory Saw franchise has captivated the hearts of horror fans since its inaugural film's release in 2004. What began as a low-budget but highly imaginative meditation on good-vs.-evil and human morality soon turned into a behemoth, releasing timely sequels every Halloween. While each sequel moved away from the thoughtfulness of the original movie to showcase more sadistically creative traps and gruesome special effects, they also sought to build and expand upon the mythos surrounding John Kramer (Tobin Bell), aka the Jigsaw Killer, an ethically motivated Charles Manson type who forces his victims to reevaluate their own moral codes.
It's been seven years since the last film, 2010's now erroneously titled Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, and fans were excited for something new. The opportunities were endless, especially for a horror flick that can draw upon such a unique and vast (if at times muddled) reserve of lore. The marketing leading up to the release of the movie hearkened back to the original principles of empathy, sacrifice, and salvation by employing taglines like "Jigsaw Saves" and referencing loyal followers. According to the canon, John Kramer has been dead for ten years -- what was his true legacy, and how has it been crystallized?
Though the film's opening sequence is promisingly hair-raising, things go downhill from there. During a police chase, a criminal pulls the trigger on a mysterious detonator that starts "the game" for five unfortunate souls. Upon awakening from their drug-induced slumber, the victims are horrified to find metal buckets locked around their heads and chains around their necks. They are consequently subjected to the most twisted team-building exercise imaginable, as they are led through a gross, abandoned barn full of fatal booby traps and forced to confess their sins and make brutal sacrifices to save each other.
Meanwhile, coroner Logan (Matt Passmore) and his assistant Eleanor (Hannah Anderson) are working with the police to investigate the mangled bodies that keep piling up on their table, and all evidence points solidly towards the supposedly deceased John Kramer. Wait a minute, though -- Detectives Hunt and Halloran (Clé Bennett and Callum Keith Rennie, respectively) unearth Eleanor's Deep Web activity, which leads them to discover that she's Jigsaw's number-one superfan (she's even gone so far as to buy originals and build replicas of the devices used in past murders). That's just one way the skeletal plot thickens a bit as the authorities race against time to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Despite a couple of twists at the end and a handful of shout-outs to longtime fans, the film is largely underwhelming. The characters and their motivations are too one-dimensional and too detached from the lore of the preceding entries to engender any real audience connection, and the acting leaves much to be desired. The traps pale in comparison to those from past movies (with one notable exception), and the splatter fest that kept so many fans returning year after year is greatly subdued. The film also eschews any attempt to explore Jigsaw's lasting effects on pop culture and society, with the sole exception of the aforementioned fansite. There was an opportunity here to reimagine and repurpose the ideas that made the first installment so unique, but it feels completely wasted due to the filmmakers' lack of creativity.
Is it fun to see Tobin Bell's face on an IMAX screen right before Halloween? Is it an entertaining way to pass an hour and a half? Sure, but for the eighth installment of a beloved cult-horror franchise that took seven years to be released, it misses the mark and ends up feeling like somebody's payday rather than the final chapter that Saw fans deserve.